How do you solve a problem like LabourList? LabourList was launched just four months ago. It has been unusually high profile"start up" because of a mainstream media strategy to promote it and because the engagement of senior Labour figures and party HQ gave it a quasi-official status, though it is officially an independent initiative launched by Derek Draper. So it was always going to have to learn and make its mistakes in public, even if the mistakes had not been quite as catastrophic.
LabourList never was and nor should it have been the sole focus of the Labour's civic and unofficial presence on the internet. The blogosphere is inherently a pluralist space, and so let a thousand flowers bloom is often the right approach to it. So we should not be starting from here. But, since we are, it seems worth setting out what might be done to both put out the fire and then see what can be rescued from the wreckage. Many other people are doing so. Hopi Sen offers both sensible advice, some important distinctions, and a few new sites which readers might want to try.
There are three different problems which can be separated out, and which need to be addressed differently.
Firstly, there has been lots of constructive if critical advice about what LabourList needed to do to get engagement right. Few could doubt Derek Draper's own energy, albeit misdirected. Others involved like Tom Miller, Alex Smith and the range of contributors have been genuinely and well motivated, even if establishing a presence of this kind will inevitably be a learning process in which it will take time to get it right. There was one central challenge for LabourList and for the Labour Party as. I wrote, welcoming the site in January, was that of learning to let go online.
There is a tension in affiliated, or independent but semi-official efforts. The widespread assumption is there will be a top down, control freak mentality: that it will be an essentially in-house effort, indistinguishable from the output of party HQ. But that would fail. Those involved recognise that. If that is followed through, then the initial scepticism may be a blessing in disguise, for they will have the chance to exceed expectations.
Well, I was certainly wrong about that. But the point remains.
Secondly, this problem was badly exacerbated by the specific problems with Derek Draper's "notoreity strategy" for LabourList itself (as opposed to Red Rag). It may have grabbed attention, but it did so at much too high a price. The idea that there was a trade-off in alienating the existing blogosphere to reach new audiences was always wrong-headed misunderstanding. The high-profile feuding - whether with Iain Dale or LabourHome - seemed to many progressive potential friends of the idea of LabourList to be using a megaphone to project how much Labour people don't get the internet.
Thirdly, the deeply unethical idea of running an anonymous scandal sheet and using LabourList to boost it was already a lunatic project which was always and inevitably going to backfire, even before the particular genius of having much of it authored by a Downing Street staffer. Preferring entirely made-up scandals and innuendo, while more rephrensible, is a second-order question, since none of this would have been an acceptable approach had those involved been committed to using this model to dig in the gutter for actual dirt.
So what should be done?
1. Derek Draper needs to quit.
I know Derek and have written for him. His apology on Sunday was a considerable improvement on his arguing for McBride to say on Saturday. John Prescott notes that Draper's status is simply as a voluntary advisor to the party on internet strategy. Clearly, after the smears episode, that relationship should and will be ended.
In my view, Draper needs to resign from LabourList too. If Draper wants LabourList to have a chance to turn around its reputation, then he must now relinquish all editorial and managerial control of the website. Otherwise, even exemplar contributions on best behaviour will be overshadowed. In particular, any challenge to the opposition parties - however legitimate or valid - will be devalued by Draper's association with it. Senior party figures are signalling that they will stay away from the site while Draper remains. That makes his continued presence is a barrier to it becoming the hub to connect grassroots and senior party voices that was envisaged. Draper stresses that he put 99.9% of his effort into LabourList, not the smear sheet project. That might still produce some value, as long as he is willing to step aside and give it a chance.
And if Draper has the interests of the Labour Party at heart, he should realise that he can play no useful public role at all in the run-up to the 2010 General Election.
There will be much discussion ahead of the next election of whether and how the internet is changing politics. The problem for Labour is that its engagement risks being (unfairly) seen entirely seen through this smeargate and Draper fiasco. That is now inevitable to some extent, but there are ways to stop digging at this point too. Clearly, when there is a consensus across the blogosphere and the media that Draper's LabourList has offered a textbook 'How Not to Blog' example it would be strange for the media to continue to treat Draper as an authoritative voice on these subjects. (Iain Dale suggests that his 79 year old grandmother could fill in). But it would be the acceptance of any such bids which would cast doubt on Draper putting the interests of his party first.
Alex Hilton of LabourHome has made the point with extreme bluntness, by apending to Draper's emailed apology a line from Draper's sweary attack on LabourHome at the Fabian/Liberal Conspiracy/LabourHome blogging fringe in Manchester, where as Next Left reported at the time, Draper said:
"If you want to wake up on March 2010 and say you were the star blogger of the election, and you got onto Radio Five Live twice, but the price you pay for that is costing Labour votes and David Cameron in Downing Street, then you can fuck off out of the Labour Party and run your own independent blog somewhere. But the point then is that nobody will be interested".
That captures the anger which many feel. (In Hilton's case, it may also reflect a LabourList-LabourHome civil war skirmish which was thankfully defused). The point is made more constructively by non-Labour progressive bloggers, like Sunny Hundal of the excellent Liberal Conspiracy website (to which I also contribute), who says he felt it important to give Draper a chance but that his presence is now a toxic one; Chris Paul cogently expresses his anger at Draper's claim to speak for grassroots blogging; Laurie Penny, a feminist blogger from the activist left, is the first to call for Draper to go on LabourList itself, but she will certainly not be the last now that the site has said it is committed to a full and frank debate about what went wrong.
It is for Draper's friends in the Labour party to persuade him that the underlying point here is a valid one. Those of us in the party who - despite the efforts of John Reid et al - remain bleeding-heart liberals should continue to believe in rehabilitation and redemption. At a personal level, that should include offering Draper the advice that he needs to hear, and supporting him if he tries to take it. My advice would be that if Draper wants to contribute to the Labour effort at the next election, he should do so as a local footsoldier not in national politics. If he now wants to remain engaged in the blogosphere more constructively, the best approach would be to create his own personal website; place himself under a self-denying ordinance not to start any flame wars or feuds for a year; and to see if he can exceed expectations by making a constructive contribution. Rehabilitation after a second scandal may be harder, but that third chance will be on offer only if Draper now departs the stage.
If Derek Draper going is necessary - but it is not enough in itself.
2. The lesson for the Labour Party is that ending command and control means letting go. Labour got everything wrong about this. The instinct to control was a lose-lose proposition.
Firstly, this is likely to create pressures to be so similar to the party's official outputs that no value is added.
Secondly, when something does go wrong, the damage to the party is all the greater.
The debate between a politics of control and a politics of pluralism in the Labour Party has shifted very decisively. This episode symbolises a party in uneasy transition away from an old model towards a better one, and some of us will be trying to make sure the lessons are used to make that happen.
If the Fabian Society, Progress, Compass or ConservativeHome does or says something daft, then the government or party can simply say 'well, its a space for debate and sometimes they have good ideas and sometimes they get it wrong'. LabourList ought to have a similar status. It does not, because the strings to Downing Street and party HQ have been all too visible.
I think the antidote here is quite simple. The party and government have their own official webspaces, which they should use. They should not then seek editorial control or oversight of independent sites. The Labour General Secretary, Ministers and MPs should simply make it clear to party staff, advisors and researchers that they must not do this. Of course, the party itself should make its own contributions, officially labelled. Ministers and MPs can run their own sites in a variety of styles.
But what the party should be doing is encouraging senior figures to engage in those spaces which they do not try to control, demonstrating the confidence to discuss politics and the ability to disagree with respect. That is foundational to any thinking about Labour connecting to progressive movement politics.
For that reason, I think it would be one small signal of "getting it" for Draper not to be "sacked" or decapitated from on high. The job of the Labour party, Ministers and MPs is not to sack him - though they can choose to make clear what their own engagement or non-engaement with LabourList or other sites can be. Even it takes a little longer, it would be far preferable to have a personal decision from Draper, driven not by a phone call from on high but more by civic pressure 'from below' across the Labour blogosphere. (That is why I am writing this post publicly, rather than making the point privately myself).
3. We need to know more about LabourList.
The problem arises when arms-length relationships are perceived as closer than they should be. LabourList is not the only example. What appeared to be the close coordination of the timing of Policy Exchange publications with the leadership's grid of speeches and party policy annoucements (over multiculturalism, regionalism and other issues) rather blew up with its 'depopulate the north' pamphlet risked derailing Cameron's grand nothern tour. Still, the approach was for the leadership to say how rubbish they thought this external contribution was.
When certain lines are crossed, it is up to the organisation itself to act; and its credibility in the broader party and civic society will depend on acting. For example, if I was to go bonkers and start spouting holocaust denial theories or be engaged in , the elected Fabian Executive would act. The Society could legitimately expect its reputation across the party and more broadly to be damaged if it was slow to sort it out.
But I do not think very much is known about LabourList. If it is to deal with its own reputational issues, it needs to pay more attention to governance and to transparency.
It is widely assumed that Unite is the main financial supporter. Given Charlie Whelan's involvement with the Red Rag outlet, that creates further problems. We need to know who the Directors are, and who the funders are, and to ensure there is a clear and public editorial policy including an ethical code.
Various ideas are worth considering. One would be to have some independent ethics or oversight group to ensure there is a trustworthy process to deal with issues which arise under it. I am no proposing a precise model - this might seem rather a lot for a website - but LabourList has now shown that it can create serious reputational issues for both itself and the Labour Party. Something like this needs to happen for
The real test of LabourList will be how - under new editorial direction - it re-engages with the Labour grassroots, the Labour blogosphere, and rather more gradually and less spectacularly, provides one forum for Labour people to think, talk and reach out. But without bitterness or rancour, I add my voice to the many other comradely calls for Derek Draper to act in the interests of the Labour Party, and to make the first move in doing what is needed to give LabourList a second chance.